The many face(t)s of Brunei

December 2015


In the middle of Borneo lies the small sultanate of Brunei. As there are no roads around we were planning on cycling right through. Also we were quite curious about the place. Rich through oil, mostly Muslim and the Sharia in place again. That’s what most people know about Brunei. But what else is there to know?

Albeit short we had a few very interesting days. Right after Christmas we crossed the border once and then back into Malaysia (as Brunei consists of two separate parts) and then back into Brunei. In the matter of a week we collected seven stamps in our passport!


Crossing borders seems arbitrary in a way and often I have a hard time believing that people are supposed to be different on the other side of the line. There are so many different factors influencing our socialisation and the place where we are born is only one of them. As we keep crossing borders (land borders, sea borders, city or province borders…) we usually do notice a few things that are different though. Cycling in Brunei was comfortable for us, as the roads suddenly had wide shoulders where we could cycle. Also there were parks and picnic areas with tables and chairs where we could take a rest.

On our way towards the capital we saw houses made from wood and some very fancy villas.


But the most obvious change was probably the forest next to the road. It seems that Brunei is able to afford keeping the forests instead of turning them into palm oil plantations. For cycling that is just beautiful: The huge trees protect us from the sun and you see a lot more monkeys jumping around. Cicadas are singing and birds chirping.

IMG_3603_v1We planned on staying two nights in Jerodong, a city near the capital, with our couchsurfing host Jay. Albeit brief, our stay provided us with a lot of impressions that question the conservative picture Brunei gets in the west. Yes, the sharia is in place and yes, alcohol is legally banned if you’re muslim.

IMG_3604_v1But there is also a lot of young people interested in change and working towards creating their own culture. There are locals wearing short pants and there are activists working for fair labour conditions. These road signs for example are from an exhibition for the rights of migrant workers. 


And yes, there is also a lot of wealth on display, especially when you visit the capital and one or two of it’s museums.


But go to a local market or hop over to Air Kampung (Water Village) and we saw a lot of parallels to life in Malaysia (Borneo): the local home made ice cream, the small shops or the houses built on stilts.

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After we spent a quiet New Year’s Eve at Jay’s place we cycled off the next day. It was Friday and our host warned us that everything would be closed between 12 and 2pm for prayer. We just managed to buy some groceries and get breakfast/lunch before really everything shut down. It was definitely interesting to see. Apart from that we had almost empty roads for a while ;).


We cycled further west where we would meet Amzah, a friend of a friend. We met up with him in the afternoon and – without knowing him before – stumbled into one of our most heart warming encounters of this trip so far.


He treated us to a beautiful room, invited us to a wedding ceremony held by his family and showed us he local beach just in time for sunset.


We met his extended family and tried all kinds of food. On the next morning we ditched our cycling-early-to-avoid-the-heat-routine once more to visit his coconut farm.

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I loved the farm and Amzah’s enthusiasm for organic growing methods.


The family also started another business where they produce organic soaps, shampoo, perfumes and more from coconut and other plants. Amzah, thank you so much for your hospitality and the tour!


During lunch time we finally cycled off and didn’t quite make it to the Malaysian border on that day. But oh well, it was so worth it. I still have a hard time believing what we managed to see and experience in those 4 days!


So of course, I cannot provide you with a deep insight into life in Brunei – our stay was way too short for that. But what I want to say is that people might be different from the picture they get in the media. Meeting people and making friends is always worth it in order to get over media images. I’m not saying that that will make everything better in the field of politics or economics but it will be the first step towards a more connected society. So please try and make the first step!

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